In a June 23, 2011 essay for The New Republic, the American journalist Leon Wieseltier writes that the ability to reason has a long history of being hounded by ‘the hegemony of passions.’

According to Wieseltier, the general perception is that reason — ever since it became one of the primary pillars of the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ — has been the dominant human faculty from the 19th century onwards. But to Wieseltier, reason has come under attack over and over again by those who find it to be cold, devoid of emotion and therefore amoral.

Political, economic and social modernity, of which the faculty of reason was a major contributor, has consistently faced an onslaught from various quarters.

The whole so-called ‘post-modernist’ movement, which took off in certain influential European and American academic circles, attempted to prove that notions such as ‘unreason’, irrationalism and superstition should be treated as expressions of localised knowledge and not discarded just because they did not suit the ideas of reason and rationalism as defined by the philosophies of the European Enlightenment.

Post-modernism was an extension of 18th century romanticism that glorified subjectivity and emotion, and searched for wisdom and inspiration in mediaeval ethos. These were rejected by the Enlightenment and replaced with an emphasis on progress, driven by science, free enterprise and rational thought. 

Those who believe they can continue to pragmatically pander to irrational passions in the country must keep in mind what happened to Z.A. Bhutto

Post-modernism which, ironically, used reason to critique the dominance of reason, generated detailed rationalisations for those who refused to let go of myths, rituals and mindsets rooted in an emotional and traditional understanding of society and faith. Many critics of post-modernism have blamed it for aiding the resurgence of ‘irrational movements.’

The American sociologist David Lyon, in his book Jesus in Disneyland, writes that postmodernism turned faith into a commodity, sold by religious outfits that are operated like companies selling spirituality. These can be the non-traditional ‘New Age spiritualism movements’ or involve people and organisations running traditional institutions of faith as businesses.

For Lyon, the tradition of religious obligation has been turned into consumption. Modernity had pushed religious obligation into the personal/private sphere through secularism whereas, uncannily, postmodernism pushed it back into the public sphere, but by turning it into a commodity that can be advertised, bought and sold like a product or brand. 

Wieseltier’s idea of the ‘hegemony of passions’ can also be understood as the proliferation of irrationalism as a creed — designed by amoral operators exploiting religious emotions through variations of faith, to capture political power and economic influence. Their success in this context depends on retaining the hegemony of passions, within which they can most effectively operate, and with which they can disrupt or entirely eliminate reason, which is seen as an enemy. 

In Pakistan, religious groups were quick to establish the hegemony of passions, especially after the acrimonious departure of East Pakistan in 1971. The departure was explained as a failure of modernity or of the rational interpretation of Islam advocated by the founders of the country. The modernist/rationalist project was criticised for being ‘elitist’ and ‘Westernised.’ 

Indeed, the so-called Muslim modernists in the country’s pre-1971 state institutions and the intelligentsia were attempting to evolve an Islamic theology in the manner in which European Enlightenment philosophers had evolved Christian Protestantism into a rational creed, which complimented secularism and scientific progress. But it is also a fact that almost all Muslim modernists claimed to have been inspired by the 9th century Muslim rationalists called the Mu’tazila.

From the 19th century South Asian Muslim scholar and reformer Sir Syed Ahmad Khan to the 20th century Islamic scholar Fazlur Rahman Malik — who was instrumental in aiding the state’s desire to institutionalise ‘Islamic Modernism’ in the 1960s — all referred to themselves as ‘neo-Mu’tazila.’ 

There is now very little available in the country’s textbooks about the Mu’tazila. This, despite the fact that Mu’tazila doctrines had become the dominant creed in the Islamic world in the 9th and 10th centuries, during what is known as the ‘golden age of Islam.’ Patronised by the Abbasid rulers, the Mu’tazila advocated a rational understanding of Islam’s sacred texts. They encouraged open debate and the assimilation of Greek philosophies to enrich ‘Islamic sciences’, when European realms were plagued by superstition. 

However, when the Abbasid Empire plunged into a cycle of succession crises, the caliphs began to distance themselves from the Mu’tazila, especially when the Mu’tazila doctrines were attacked by ulema who managed to gain popularity among the masses impacted by the crises.

In the 11th century, when the first Christian crusade was successful in capturing Jerusalem, the theologian Al-Ghazali dealt the final blow to the Mu’tazila doctrine by upholding the orthodoxy of the ulema. To the state of Pakistan, the fall of Dhaka in 1971 was what the fall of Jerusalem was to Ghazali. Rational theology was criticised as the source of disunity. Open debate came to be seen as a threat. 

In 1974, the so-called left-liberal government of Z.A. Bhutto tried to co-opt the increasing interest in religiosity in post-1971 Pakistan by agreeing to allow the parliament to oust the Ahmadiyya from the fold of Islam. But this only strengthened the hegemony of passions. It expanded two-fold, especially from the 1980s onwards. Politicians and the state have tried to use it for entirely political purposes, despite the fact that this hegemony is not bothered by the irrationalism of marginalising religious minorities as well as Muslims opposed to it.

The irrationalism in this context is about how many among those marginalised were/are highly talented in the fields of economics, science, sports, arts, etc., and important to the health of the state and polity.

But this hegemony has also become a quagmire for the state and politicians. They have to pragmatically mouth the emotive declarations of this hegemony, as they did recently during a ‘parliamentary debate’ on whether to send the French ambassador back because of the French regime’s refusal to curb ‘Islamophobia.’ The debate thus became a contest between the treasury benches and the opposition, both claiming they were better Muslims than the other.

Ironically, reason, in this case at least, was only applied by the otherwise populist centre-right PM Imran Khan when he tried to explain that, in a globalised economy, Pakistan cannot afford to cut off ties with any of its trading partners. 

The truth is, those who believe they can continue to pragmatically navigate the country’s hegemony of passions must keep in mind what happened to Z.A. Bhutto. In 1974, he congratulated himself for doing just this but, three years later, the very forces he had appeased overthrew him. This hegemony has no room for even the pragmatic dimensions of reason.

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 2nd, 2021

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